ELYRIA — School officials laid out options Thursday for a facilities overhaul and master plan that includes demolition of existing elementary and middle schools and construction of all new schools for students in prekindergarten through eighth grades.
Board members were presented with three options to consider, all of which have the state paying 67 percent of total project costs, which range from $126 million to $141 million, while local shares would stand at 33 percent, with price tags ranging from $44 million to $53 million.
It’s a scenario that Elyria school board members said after the meeting would essentially allow the district to get several schools for the price of one.
Superintendent Tom Jama said the goal of the master plan is to “change the face of the Elyria City School district.”
“It’s an absolute exciting time for this whole community,” Jama said. “But, most importantly, it’s a tremendous time for the kids in this district, who deserve nothing but the best.”
Former Superintendent Paul Rigda, who led the district through construction and renovation of Elyria High School, is serving as a consultant during the master planning process. On Thursday he took the helm in explaining the options the board has to consider.
The first option, which Rigda said is the least favorable, but which the state nonetheless has offered, calls for building three new elementary schools to house kindergartners through fifth-graders at a cost of $21.6 million each.
Additionally, it calls for building three new middle schools for grades 6-8 at costs of $15.6 million each and renovating the former Elyria West High School, which now houses Kindergarten Village and administrative offices, with $12.3 million in local funds. The local share of cost for this option, which has a total estimated cost of more than $136 million, would be around $51 million.
This option would create more of a mega campus and would require more student transportation, which Rigda estimated would cost an additional $1.5 million annually to bus students.
The second option would create five new elementary schools for kindergarten through fourth grade at a cost of $12.9 million each and three middle schools for fifth- through eighth-graders at $17.5 million each, while also renovating the Elyria West site using $12.3 million in local funds.
This option keeps schools as “standalone” facilities, rather than creating a campus, and local funds would cover $53.6 million of the more than $141 million project.
The final option presented, which officials seemed to favor, calls for building four new elementary schools for kindergarteners through fourth-graders for $12.9 million each, one prekindergarten-through-eighth-grade campus at the Elyria West site for $32.8 million, and two new middle schools for fifth- through eighth-graders that would cost $15 million to $17 million.
This option would see local funds covering $44 million of the $126 million project.
The district already has all the land it needs for any of the options, and in all cases would be able to construct schools on land adjacent to existing buildings. Rigda said this eliminates the need to move students out of schools during construction. The old schools would be demolished after new schools are occupied.
The school board has until April to gather community input on all options before deciding which route to pursue. Rigda said the goal is to keep local shares of project costs below $60 million and to ask voters to approve a 4-mill or less levy.
If the master plan moves forward, the district plans on having all existing elementary and middle schools demolished, with new building s in place over the next five to seven years.
Rigda, who worked for the district for several decades before retiring last year, said the numerous current buildings date to when every neighborhood in Elyria needed its own school because most children walked to school.
When Rigda came to the district in 1977, it was the 14th-largest district in Ohio, with more than 12,000 students at a time when factories were booming, charter schools didn’t exist and most students attended traditional public schools.
“At that point, we were riding high,” Rigda said, adding that there were once 16 schools.
Times changed, and as the years went by enrollment declined steadily, with numbers dropping to 9,600 in 1996, when Elyria West closed. Today, the district has 6,238 students.
Enrollment is expected to continue falling. It is estimated that in 10 years the district will lose another 884 students.
“The number of schools are determined by the number of kids,” Rigda said. “It’s always been difficult to make change in an area, and it’s easier to add schools than to subtract schools, as we know.”
Enrollment drives everything from how much money the district receives from the state to pay bills, Rigda said, to determining how many square feet the Ohio Schools Facilities Commission will approve for co-funded construction projects.
The district already shuttered several elementary schools, and its master plan intends to close more to keep in line with enrollment trends while also taking advantage of the 67 percent in state funding.
Is there support?
The district hired consulting firm Burges & Burges to gauge whether voters would support a levy request to carry out the master plan, and results show strong support.
The firm surveyed 400 registered voters and tested community perception of schools and trust in schools and a potential bond issue.
The majority of respondents rated educational quality as either excellent or good, and the survey also found that 82 percent of those who responded do not have children in the district. Vanessa Tey Iosue, vice president of Burges & Burges, said this means they probably represent a population who would tend to be less supportive of schools or less-informed on school issues, which could indicate the community as a whole would favor the master plan.
Initial responses indicated that 45.8 percent would support a November 2016 bond issue while 31. 5 were against it and 22.8 percent were undecided.
When information was shared with respondents about the age and condition of current facilities, state contribution to costs and other aspects of the project, support jumped to 60 percent.
Rigda said it is a positive point for the district’s history, and initial polling appears to indicate now is the time to approach the community and gather input about the master plan while asking for support.
In the past 10 years, Elyria has had a levy on the ballot eight times and has passed those issues seven of times, something officials said can’t be said in many districts throughout the state.
“We are popular with the people and community, and we should not take that for granted,” Rigda said.
What about the stadium?
Ely Stadium is an aging facility, and although stadium construction costs weren’t included in any of the options presented, the topic of a stadium overhaul was discussed.
The district believes it could build a new athletic complex for about $8 million, although board member Greg Elek said he’s confident many in the community, including corporate sponsors, would step up to contribute to bring that cost down.
Board members and district officials said the restrooms at the current stadium are an embarrassment, the visitors’ bleachers violate building codes, and the aging stadium is overdue for an overhaul.
Those present at Thursday’s meeting said students at the new high school take pride in the improved surroundings.
But now those same students find themselves in modern classrooms during school hours and on outdated athletic facilities while participating in extracurricular activities.
Board vice president Michael Gebhardt said an article he read sums it all up.
“It said it was one of the premier stadiums in Ohio, and how great it was,” he said. “But that was from 88 years ago, and not much has been done since then.”
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